Adapted from a talk at Podcast Movement’s PMX Competition 2019. A love story, a story about creating. During the years I was studying music in Seattle, I worked with jazz legend Overton Berry. In this episode, I share our story and how he helped lay a foundation for telling amazing stories through word and music.
This is day two of NaPodPoMo and a part of Story Saturday.
If you want to support the show, get a shout out on the feed, a recording of my “theme song” Don’t Call It Love from my last record, and be a part of the hour AMA(Ask me Anything) on the last day of the Challenge, Nov 30, head on over to Patreon. That’s www.patreon.com/grittybirds
Today, is Story Saturday.
This is a recorded version of a talk I did at Podcast Movement’s 2018 PMX Competition. Stay tuned to the end of the episode for a very special musical recording related to the episode.
Choose Your Own Adventure: An Artist’s Guide to Storytelling
Listen, just Listen
We’re going to go on a little adventure today.
It’s mid-morning, the sun is shining brightly into your window, birds chirping. You look in the bathroom mirror, brush your bangs our of your eyes, breath deep and think, Does this tanktop look okay? Will he like it? I hope Mom doesn’t make me change.
Outside, you hear a car door shut. Your heart beats quickly. The sound of a screen door opens, screeching and swinging shut. Thump thump, thump of the stairs and then a quick knock(knock pattern).
A rush of blood comes to your face, you straighten your shirt, walk cooly to the door and open it.
He’s 16 years old, a blonde mop on his head. You find yourself smiling bigger than you mean to. “Ready?”
You grab your bag, look into his blue eyes and say, “yes” skipping out the door.
Mom says, “drive safe! Don’t speed!”
You give him a knowing look and say, ‘sure!’
He starts the engine, that purr of the BMW inviting you in. The leather feels cool on your thighs as the sound of 100% Hip hop plays on the speakers. He glances over, revs the engine, touching your shoulder for just a moment and you feel your pulse race.
“Hi.” He smiles. “Lets go”.
On the edge of edge of town, you hit a stoplight. He gives you a knowing look, you giggle and he revs the engine.
And you’re off.
The car speeds up, hitting the open highway, pedal to the metal. The song Tennessee from Arrested Development comes on the radio. You open the window and the air comes streaming through your car.
“Take me to another place, take me to another land
Let me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan.”
The car speeds up, 60, the 70
‘Take me to another place , take me to another land
Let me forget all that hurts me, let me understand your plan
80, 90, 100
You look over, your heart beating fast, the look of his blonde hair and the sound of the music sending your hormones in overdrive. He looks at you with you with his blue eyes and you break down laughing.
and then you see a car coming from the other direction and SCREAM!
I bet you wonder what happens next right?
It doesn’t matter what I tell you.
At this point, I could go anywhere.
using cues of tempo, structure and sensory memory, you’ve already become emotionally invested.
I am a storyteller and a songwriter. A weaver of tales you might say. For the last decade, I’ve been using basic tenants from my training and experience as an musician to harness emotion as a writer, podcast producer and songwriter.
The key to great storytelling is a getting out of your head and choosing your own adventure,
using emotion and memory to draw upon and maximize experiences to connect and inspire your audience
And today, I’m going share with you some of the basic tools I’ve used as an artist that will help unlock your potential as a storyteller.
LISTEN LIKE YOU EAT
Before you do anything, you need to learn to listen.
Let me tell you a story.
In the summer of 2006, I was ready to start my life in music. I was 23 years old, had just moved from Iowa to Seattle with a vocal performance degree. I wanted to be a jazz singer.
Every Tuesday I would get into my car and drive just north of the city to the home of an elderly African American gentleman, one of Seattle’s jazz greats, Overton Berry, to study music and help him around the house.
I’d walk up the stairs into his home, books in hand, bubbling with energy. Overton would take my hand, tell me it was wonderful to see me..
Then we’d sit down, he’d steep tea in his earthenware service, pour us each a small glass, pull me up to his computer and say “Jeni I want to show you something.”
I would figit in the chair, as I waited for the lesson to begin, when we’d start playing the piano. He’d open Rhapsody, a popular song sharing program at the time, choose a song and tell me, “listen”.
And we’d sit.
With Overton, there was a lot of sitting and listening. I came to realize over time the lesson had begun the moment I opened his front door.
Even when we finally sat down at the piano, he would only let me play a simple Dorian progression.
<cue dorian loop>
And then he would tell me a story.
In our first few weeks, our first few lessons, I would sat, impatient, listening to his calm laughter, playing the dorian scale, ready for the day where we’d finally START playing music.
Listen, he would say, just listen.
I would continue to fidget, getting frustrated that we were still just playing progressions. Overton would laugh saying, “Jen, remember to sit down and listen.”
See at this age, I’d performed on stages to hundreds of people for over a decade, winning awards sharing rote lines from musicals, operas, oratorios and plays written by others. I was pretty cocky.
Yet when it came down to sharing something that felt intimate and personal, something that I’d .. I found myself stuck at the first note, nervous and completely unsure of my own voice and perspective.
What I didn’t realize was that I was absorbing information. Similar to a toddler, every lyric, every note, every chord progression, every plot had been finding it’s way into some part of my reptilian brain.
Slowly but surely Overton was teaching me all the keys I needed to be a great storyteller and songwriter.
I called him up last week as I was on the road. We check in often and I wanted to see if he had a take away to share.
He said, “Listen like you’re eating.”
In all those lessons, in the 20 years before I began writing music and stories, this what I was doing, eating.
In music, the #1 piece of advice to practice, practice, practice. And to do so, with intention. We’d be asked to go concerts and listen to albums, to write down chord progressions and translate lyrics. As a student, my preparation was very tied to taking information in.
And as storytellers, before we begin anything, we need to listen, listen, listen. With intention.
The more sensorial information we can take in during daily lives, the more smells, flavors, sounds and sensations we take in, the more we can use them as we craft narratives from our interviews.
Sometimes we scarf down moments because we’re hungry. Sometimes, we take them in slowly and savor it. Sometimes we look back at an experience and understand, “That was one damn good meal.” It’s hose moments we didn’t realize were so important can be the ones that inform our art on the deepest levels.
Lets go back to the story we started earlier. The details are pulled from my own memory, of my first love. They’re shaded by time, a mix of many moment. They’re memories that might remind you of things you’ve experienced yourself.
But I can recapture that feeling to set up a story, an adventure that you leaves you wanting to know more. The feel of first love, the joy of disobeying your parents, the rush of pushing limits, the moment of fear when you realize you might have gone too far.
The take away is to bring in as many experiences as you. Write them down, fill up your pot with images and memories, transcripts that will open the doors for your stories.
Don’t let anything go, use every moment as a learning tool. Intentionally.
Set the tempo
The next key lesson as a student of the arts is to explore tempo and tone.
One of the most frustrating elements for me as a music student was slowing down. In my lessons with Overton, he would have me write down scales in every key along with their chords. Then, in major and minor. Then, I would spend an hour most days, practicing these scales with a metronome.
And every time he would tell me to slow down, to lower the tempo and feel every note.
This exercise is one of the keys in any lesson program. The slower you go, the more that you will build your muscle and aural memory.
Eventually, Overton and I began working on songs. The first he taught me was Loverman, a tune first made popular by Billie Holiday. In her version, it’s upbeat, with movement.
The first time we sat down, I counted off the beats and he followed me.
I don’t know why but I’m feelin so sad, I long to try something I’ve never had
Lovin and a kissin, boy what I’v ebeen missin
Loverman oh where can you be.
I sang it and was so proud of myself. I’d show him, all these weeks of practicing scales. FINALLY I could show him that I didn’t need it, I was a great singer.
We stopped and he was unenthused. He said, that was okay. But I didn’t hear you.
My face dropped. He laughed. “Oh honey, you’re always in a rush. What did I tell you, slow down! Listen”
He invited me to sit down and close my eyes, to put my hand on his body. He asked me to imagine someone I loved, someone who got away.
The first thougth in my head was that boy when I was 16 years old. I saw his blonde hair, instinctively. I felt that tug in my heart.
Overton asked me to follow him this time and to sing like I’d been practicing, intentionally, to sing every note from my heart
1 2 3 4
I don’t know why but I’m feelin so sad, I long to try something I’ve never had
Lovin and a kissin, boy what I’v ebeen missin
Loverman oh where can you be.
We finished the song, there were tears in my eyes.
‘Oh girl”, he said, “THAT’S what I was talking about. You have to feel the beat in your heart.”
It’s so easy to rush through our stories, to trivialize the message. To take the obvious approach to a story.
But you have to choose your tempo and tone intentionally. Not the one you think you know, but the one that makes sense for the story. The one you can connect to, that the character asks for.
This is the value of setting TEMPO. It’s the choice that sets the mood and tone of your song or your episode. It’s the elements that guides your listener’s emotional investment.
Imagine tempo and tone as a flashlight. It’s how fast you talk, the music you choose underneath, the movement and pace you begin with.
By accessing the information of what you are taking and then allowing your narrative to guide the pace of your story for your listener.. It’s the elements guiding your listener’s emotional investment and keeping them hooked till the end.
And these two elements are the BASIS of every important choice you will make a storyteller.
Last fall I started the third season of my podcast Gritty Birds. Each season I’ve slightly tweaked my format to create more emotional impact.
Each time, I’ve used these two basic tenants from Overton: listening and letting the tempo lead the way. He encouraged me to take songs I knew and try them in different ways, to experience it fresh every single time.
In the first season, the first 13 episodes, I started simply. I asked a series of about 60 questions. They were the basis of the tempo of the series. In the beginning this was very important. I did minor editing, but used the questions to guide the listeners
As the second season hit, I started editing the show for time, using the questions as a basis, but getting rid of answers that lost flow.
Then, on episode 21, I completely overhauled the show with after being picked up by local Radio network XRAY.FM, shifting the format to narrative storytelling
The transition to narrative was challenging, but these first 20 episodes, where I took my time were the groundwork.. they were the scales set met up for success, that helped me transition.
Just like in music, starting simply and building in to more complex tricks made a huge difference.
I found myself really drawing up on my experience as a songwriter and teacher to make the narrative shows work. It was then that the tempo and movement I’d used in music became even more important.
The last two episodes I produced are the ones I’m most proud of. I got rid of the fluff, moved to shorter segments and the use of music for entire episodes.
But I didn’t get rid of my questions. I still kept to what I knew. In fact, I found myself using my listening ears even more, dialing down hour long interviews to 15 minute features. What I realized was that even if there is 60 minutes worth of material, if there is 15 minutes of a great story, that’s a win.
And eventually, I started writing music again.
Because this works. If we’re good listeners and use our stories as our guides, the emotion is going to come naturally.
Get over it & Trust your Gut
After my EP, I starting interviewing artists. I’ve been honored to talk to over 100 musicians on record, written dozens of artist features for multiple publications and produced close to 60 episodes for Gritty Birds. The question that I always ask, my bread and butter, the ‘dorian scale’ of my interview process I come back to every time is:
what advice would you give to an upcoming artist today”
And almost 100% of the time, it comes down to trusting your gut..
“My best advice is to relax. I think a lot of people put way too much pressure on themselves.” – Natasha Kmeto
“If I have an emotional response while a song is coming to me that is a clear indicator that this is good, this is something worthwhile” – David Bazan of Pedro the Lion
“This is my job. It’s my only job and who knows how long I’m gonna want to keep doing this. So I treat everything I make like, this is going to be the last thing.” Ezra Furman
And that’s it, if you can listen, really listen and keep cultivating your practice, you will be successful.
Overton didn’t teach me to write, he lit a flashlight I had all along, that left me able access everything in the darkness.
Lets go back to the story of that blond haired boy.
A couple months before I left Seattle, I went through a minor breakup. Things were rough, jobs were hard to find and it was clear that I would have to leave soon.
It’d been a few months since Overton and I had one of our sessions. I sat down at my piano at my decaying band house in South Seattle, started with that Dorian scale at home..
and for the first time a song flooded out of me. Just like the first time I sang Loverman with Overton, I thought of that boy. I thought of that drive that day with the wind blowing through our hair as we hit 100 on the way to the lake. I took the emotion from the man I’d just stopped dating and let the energy of my first love drive the story.
And I wrote my first song, a ballad that became the leading single off my 2013 EP.
Ultimately, whatever happened with that blonde haired boy, doesn’t matter. The reality isn’t as interesting as the feelings that it informed as I unlocked my creative voice.
All those hours SITTING STILL had created something in me, a relationship with my voice and a piano that had been building in all of Overton and I’s quiet afternoons, in those summer drives and in a million moments in between.
You just need to make room for the light.
Then, you can tell YOUR story. Choose your OWN adventure.
If you Listen, just listen.